The Secrets of General Intelligence You Won’t Learn in School

The irony of modern education (particularly K-12) is that the principles of general intelligence—the ability to form rational and insightful conclusions regardless of the subject—are simply not taught and almost entirely ignored. The more you think about it, the more unbelievable it is that we’ve allowed this to happen. It would be like deciding that mathematics is no longer to be taught because students can figure it out for themselves or can learn the aspects of mathematics necessary only for their jobs.

The modern educational model is centered on style over substance and the delivery of brute facts over the careful consideration of method. We teach our students historical facts and dates, but we don’t bother to show them how the historian evaluates the reliability of various primary sources and what to do when sources conflict. We teach students the names and order of the planets in our solar system, but we don’t bother to show them the nature of the scientific method or the importance of control groups, replication, large sample sizes, and peer-review. We teach facts but not the method used to discover those facts; we tell students what to believe, not how to think.

And then we wonder why the population can’t interpret the most basic scientific research, or why they can’t hold a reasonable discussion in politics without resorting to name-calling. It would be like refusing to teach math and then wondering why people can’t do basic algebra.

The Six Secrets of Intelligence might sound like a run-of-the-mill self-help book, but it is something far more sophisticated and important than that. Craig Adams demonstrates with exceptional skill and clarity the elements of general intelligence, why they’re not taught in schools, what the consequences are, and how to fix this. He argues, convincingly, that if we are to produce graduates with better thinking skills, we need to prioritize the teaching of philosophy, and particularly the teaching of the critical reasoning skills that underlie and are independent of every subject.

For anyone with experience in philosophy or informal logic, the ideas in this book will be anything but a secret (perhaps a better title would have been The Six Elements of Intelligence). Deduction, induction, analogy, reality, meaning, and evidence will be more than familiar to anyone with experience in philosophy or critical thinking. But that’s the point—if your education consists exclusively of formal K-12 education, these ideas WILL be secrets to you. If you’ve never been exposed to the abstract ideas that underlie better thinking, you will probably not be able to discover them on your own, just as you would likely never discover the ideas of algebra if you were never formally taught mathematics.

Adams argues that the mind does have a universal structure, and that this is obvious from the fact that we can still learn from a group of people that lived in a radically different culture speaking an entirely different language more than 2,000 years ago—the Ancient Greeks. We can learn from them because, unlike other tribes lost in the particulars of their own cultures, the Greeks searched for universal explanations that transcended any particular time and place. In particular, Aristotle was the first to catalogue the universal structure of the human mind and the universal principles of reasoning that underlie all of our beliefs and arguments.

Adams is claiming that we should explicitly teach these ideas—first discovered by Aristotle—as research in psychology demonstrates that people can reason more effectively after exposure to abstract ideas. Teach people about the law of large numbers, for example, and they perform significantly better on subsequent tests on statistical reasoning. If we teach our students the principles of effective deductive, inductive, and analogical reasoning—including what exactly makes an argument deceptive—they will be both better at argumentation themselves and less susceptible to manipulation. The result is that we’ll also get better politicians, because they will be held to a higher argumentative standard.

This is exactly what is missing in public education, and is exactly what is deficient in public discourse. We are overloaded with facts and statistics and we have no idea what to do with them. We mistrust science because we don’t understand it, and we are childishly superficial in our politics—not because we lack knowledge—but because we are oblivious to the most basic aspects of rationality.

The thing is, those aspects—contrary to the name of the book—are not secrets. They’ve been known for more than 2,000 years and have been expanded upon by modern psychology and philosophy. They are secret only in the sense that we refuse to teach them to the public in any meaningful way.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a deeper look into the structure of our minds and arguments. If you haven’t been exposed to these ideas, they are truly transformative, and Adams presents them in a clear, concise, and objective manner. You’ll also learn about why the educational system doesn’t teach these skills, and a potential way forward.

The book is not perfect, though. There is quite a bit of repetition in the book in terms of outlining the problem. Adams makes his case—quite persuasively—and then continues to harp on the point. To my surprise, he also fails to outline how exactly schools can update their curriculum. Should we incorporate these ideas in the teaching of the subjects themselves, e.g. by focusing on the method of doing history rather than a list of dates and events? Or should we teach these skills in separate classes? Or both? Should we just teach logic or expand the philosophy curriculum to cover all philosophical topics, like ethics and political philosophy (my preference). This was an opportunity for Adams to present his specific recommendations and, in my opinion, he missed it. Perhaps that will be the topic of his next book.

The Six Secrets of Intelligence is available on